Opium use is common among some tribes, in some regions and among some ordinary Indians. The government provides opium rations to some tribes but illegal cultivation also occurs. Even snake charmers and street sweepers can afford a cheap opium drink made from the outer pods of the poppy that sell about 75 cents to a dollar per cup.

Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, drank opium with his wine and decorated the tomb of his beloved wife with poppies. Another Mughal Emperor Humayun was an opium addict who spent little time with his wives or members of his harem. After consulted with some astrologers on the roof of his palace Delhi in 1556, he fell down descending some stairs at his library in Delhi and died from a head injury. It is said he had consumed large amounts of opium.

Mughal Emperor Jahangir loved opium and alcohol. He drank his opium in liquid form. In “Tuzuk-I-Jahangiri”, he wrote, "The entertainment of Thursday was arranged for use in that flower-land, and I was delighted at drinking my usual cups." Jahangir become so subdued by opium and alcohol that his wife, foreign-born Queen Nur Jahan (Light of the World), ran his empire during most of his reign.The Mughals also fed opium to their war elephants to calm them before battles.

Today truck driver are major consumers of opium and prostitutes. One villager said: "once you get addicted to opium, you can spoil a whole family." Opium pellets taken orally are often given to workers in the fields "to keep up one's strength and stamina". The pellets cost as little as a few rupees a day. Brown-colored opium liquid comes in a bottle like cough medicine. [Source: "The Villagers" by Richard Critchfield, Anchor Books]

Construction workers, truck drivers and field labors put a “goli” (tiny ball of opium) under their tongue and drink it down with tea. It gives them endurance and alleviates their fatigue. Opium is dispensed legally by doctors as a remedy for scorpion bites, asthma and other aliments. Doctors often mix herbal remedies with opium medicine and progressively reduce the dosages of opium without telling the patient to reduce the risk of addiction and withdrawal symptoms.

During the festival of Holi in Rajasthan men drink opium from the open palm of a friend and then perform a stick dance called the “dandi”. The Rabari also drink the intoxicating elixir. The Rajasthan opium ceremony is a low-key affair with turbaned men preparing an opium drink for guests to drink. It is regarded as an act of hospitality. Guest drink it from their open palms. Jay Tindall wrote in remotelands.com: “I took part in an opium ceremony in a Rajput village. Here, the men gather three or four times per day to drink opium together. The men who have gathered in their colorful turbans are not engaging in any ordinary tea ceremony — to be frank, they are addicted to opium. Yet drinking opium is not the same as smoking it. There is a certain energy and euphoria which comes forth. Like most of the men, I drank the opium from the hands of a village elder, rather than using a cup. If I was there again I suppose I’d do it again – it is basically what all the men do. It is their social drink, if you will. [Source: Jay Tindall, remotelands.com, January 14, 2013] See Opium articles at factsanddetails.com

History of Opium in India

By A.D. 1000, Opium is cultivated, eaten, and drunk in India by all classes as a household remedy; it is used by rulers as an indulgence, and given to soldiers to increase their courage. The earliest western records of opium as a product of India and its widespread use occur date to around 1500. Under the Mughal dynasty, founded in 1526, poppy cultivation and opium sales become a state monopoly. Several famous Mughal emperors become opium addicts. See Above. [Source: Erowid.org]

1563: "Conversations on the simples, drugs and materia medica of India" is published by Portuguese physician Garcia de Orta. It discusses Cannabis, Opium, and Nutmeg, among more than 50 medicinal plants and substances.

1750: The British East India Company assumes control of Bengal and Bihar, the opium growing districts of eastern India; British shipping dominates the Bengal opium trade out of Calcutta. 1757: Britain annexes Bengal; opium grown there is traded in canton, where the Chinese confine foreign trade. Hong Kong merchants serve as intermediaries between the foreigners and the Chinese authorities. Opium from Bengal continues to enter China despite the edict of 1729 prohibiting smoking. It increases in frequency from 200 chests annually in 1729 to 1000 annually by 1767 However, much is for medicinal use. Tariffs are collected on the opium.

1772: The East India company establishes a limited monopoly over Bengal opium. Warren Hastings, the first governor general of India (1773 - 1786), recognizes that opium is harmful and at first opposes increasing production; later he encourages the control of opium by the company hoping that by monopolizing and limiting the supply he will discourage its consumption. This limited monopoly lasts throughout his administration and beyond, but when the Chinese market is discovered, the monopoly shifts from controlling to expanding cultivation.

1787: Trade in opium is still less important than trade in commodities; directors of the East India Company, recognizing China's objections to the importation of opium, make offers to prohibit the export of Indian opium to China. However, company representatives in Canton declare that the Chinese are never sincere in their declared intentions of suppressing illicit traffic, as long as the officials issue prohibitory edicts with one hand and extend the other to receive bribes from the illegal trade. In 1797: The East India Company assumes full control of Bengal opium.

Opium Trade Between China and India

By the 1780s, British appetite for tea and Chinese indifference to British goods had produced a trade deficit that the East India Company began to fill by supplying opium grown in British Bengal. It was a trade that greatly benefited the British exchequer, the merchants who traded it, the officials who grafted on it, the Chinese wholesalers who bought it and the foreign missionaries who travelled with it.” Tea was a major Chinese export product to Britain. The first tea arrived in London from China in 1652. By the late 18th century and early 19th century traders from newly industrialized Britain were importing millions of pounds of tea from China. The British had hoped to trade finished goods such as textiles for tea and silk without having to go through the Emperors' greedy middlemen, but that didn't happen. Imperial China had no need for foreign products and they were importing virtually nothing from Europe.

To remedy the situation, the foreigners developed a third-party trade, exchanging their merchandise in India and Southeast Asia for raw materials and semiprocessed goods, which found a ready market in Guangzhou. By the early nineteenth century, raw cotton and opium from India had become the staple British imports into China, in spite of the fact that opium was prohibited entry by imperial decree. The opium traffic was made possible through the connivance of profit-seeking merchants and a corrupt bureaucracy. [Source: The Library of Congress]

The British had few things that the Chinese wanted so opium, grown in India, was introduced as a new medium of exchange. Opium was the perfect commodity for trading. It didn't rot or spoil, it was easy to transport and store, it created its own market and it was highly profitable. The standard measurement for opium was a 135-pound chest, which sold for as much as a thousand silver dollars.

In the late 18th century and early 19th century, opium was the world's largest traded commodity and Britain operated the world's largest drug cartel. The opium trade was dominated by the British East India Company, which oversaw the cultivation and processing of opium in India that was sold at auctions in Calcutta. About a six of India's revenues and much of the money for the Royal Navy came from the opium trade.

India, China and the Opium War

The British East India Company built up a huge debt for silk, tea and lacquerware. The unfavorable balance of trade between Britain and China and resentment over China's restrictive trading practices set in motion the chain of events that led to the Opium Wars. When the United Kingdom could not sustain its growing deficits from the tea trade with China (partially also because the Qing imperial court refused to open the Chinese market for British goods), it smuggled opium into China.

In spite the Emperor's objections to the business, the opium trade boomed in China. In 1773, the British unloaded 150,000 pounds of Bengal opium in Canton to pay off their foreign debt. By 1800, they were exporting 200,000 pounds of opium a year to China. The British justified their involvement in the opium trade by saying that they were only trying to meet demands for the drug in China and Chinese officials encouraged the business.

The First Opium War (1839-42) began in March 1839, when a Chinese representative of the emperor named Lin Zexu, ordered British merchants to stop trading opium "forever" and surrender "every article" of opium in their possession. British merchants handed over their entire inventory of opium, some 20,000 chests (2.7 million pounds, about 95 percent British and 5 percent American) to the Chinese, The British used the seizure of the opium as an excuse to start a war against China. British pursued war for two main reasons: 1) British merchants and farmers growing the opium in India were making heaps of money; 2) and China was easier to exploit and subdue if large numbers of its citizens were under the influence of the drug.

Unprepared for war and grossly underestimating the capabilities of the enemy, the Chinese were disastrously defeated, and their image of their own imperial power was tarnished beyond repair. British reinforcements from India arrived in June 1840. British gunboats — iron-hulled steamships and powerful cannons — attacked coastal cities and laid waste to important Chinese fortresses. The British seized control of Canton and the surrounding areas, killing thousands. After British gunships stormed up the Yangtze River and the British threatened to attack Nanjing and Peking, China surrendered. Reduced to an opium-addicted shell China was defeated by a few British cannon. After the Chinese surrendered, the Treaty of Nanjing in August 1842. The first of several "unequal treaties," it that gave up the island Hong Kong to the British "in perpetuity," opened five ports to European trade, forced China to pay an indemnity of $21 million (around $500 million in today’s money and large sum for a largely impoverished country and bankrupt dynasty) and minimal tariffs on imported goods. It also forced China to continue accepting East India Company opium. The Qing Emperor at first refused to accept the Nanjing Treaty, but another British attack changed his mind. Further concessions were made after the second Opium War in 1860.

Opium Production in India

Two thirds of the world's legal opium crop is processed by a Indian government-authorized company. In 1983, 997 metric tons of opium was produced on 32,000 hectares of land. Most of it is used in medicines by pharmaceutical companies. The livelihood of more than a million people is tied up with opium and opium processing. Most of the opium ends up in the United States. It is also sold to buyers in Russia, France, Britain and Japan. [Source: Peter T. White, National Geographic, February 1985 ]

About 170,000 licensed farmers in 7,000 villages raised opium poppies under the authorization of the government in 1983, earning about $15 a kilo for opium and more for poppy seed. Many Hindu farmers light incense sticks and remove their sandals before entering a poppy field out of respect to the goddess Kali. A government opium-growing license is considered a status symbol and a means to a comfortable, respectable livelihood. People suspected of not selling all their opium to the government run the risk of losing their license. Many farmers rotate opium and maize.

Each year the India government notifies selected tracts where opium cultivation is permitted, and the general conditions for eligibility of the licence. The essential condition for issue of licence is, fulfillment of minimum qualifying yield (MQY) criterion, specified in number of kilograms per hectare. Cultivators who have tendered at least this quantity in the previous year are eligible for licence. The licence among other conditions, specifies the maximum area in which the opium crop can be sown. Some place where opium is grown are Chittourgarh in Rajasthan; Mandsaur, Ratlam, Neemuch in Madhya Pradesh; and Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh. For the crop year 2008-09, total number of licences issued was 44821, while MQY was fixed at 56 kilograms per hectare for Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and 49 kilograms per hectare for Uttar Pradesh. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Opium extraction takes place in February and March. Farmers still use the traditional method where they lance each poppy capsule manually with a special blade like tool, a process known as lancing. The lancing is done in late afternoon or evenings. The opium latex which oozes out and congeals in the night is scraped and collected manually the next morning. Each poppy capsule is given three to four lancings. +

The Central Bureau of Narcotics (CBN) is responsible for overall supervision of cultivation in accordance with the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (India), 1985 and Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Rules (India), 1985.Officers of CBN measure each field to ensure that no excess cultivation takes place. +

Opium Processing in India

The Government Opium and Alkaloid Works at Nimach in Madya Pradesh is one of the largest opium processing facilities in the world. In the 1980s it contained about 800 rectangular pans that are used during the harvesting season to dry about 35 kilos of opium each. Resembling shiny tar, the opium is stirred by men with wooden paddles about every half hour or so for 8 to 20 days until the water content of the opium is reduced from 30 percent to 10 percent. The opium is then formed into five-kilo loaves. The Nimach facility is guarded by armed security officers. Workers are required to wash themselves, their clothes and their shoes at the end of each day (with opium extracted from the run-off water). Labor -intensive methods are used at the Nimach facility to provide jobs. An indoor storage receptacle resembles a swimming pool and holds 350 tons of opium, making it the largest opium-storing receptacle in the world. [Source: Peter T. White, National Geographic, February 1985 ]

The opium processing plant in Ghazipur in the Ganges was built by the British in 1820. It processes 1,500 tons of opium a year. Large amounts of opium are also processed in Rajasthan. In the 1980s, laborers who worked for three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening made about one dollar day harvesting opium and $20 a season.

All such opium collected is required to be necessarily tendered to the government, at specially set up opium collection centres, in early April. Opium is checked for quality and consistency and weighed at the centres. Prices are paid which are fixed by the Government in slab rates, depending on the quality and quantity of opium tendered. A 90 percent payment is made when the opium is received. The final 10 percent is paid after laboratory testing at opium factory after confirming that no adulterants have been found. All the opium procured is sent to Government Opium and Alkaloid Factories situated at Neemuch and Ghazipur. Opium is dried and processed at these factories for export and is also used for extraction of various products like Codeine phosphate, Thebaine, Morphine sulphate and Noscapine.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.